2018 - The year of the nanny state

by Jeremy Hutton, Policy Analyst

2018 has been a testing year for those residing in Britain. We've had 365 days of Brexit front page and centre near enough every day of the year. You could be forgiven for being ignorant about what else government has been doing the past year. You might have heard of the collapse of Carillion in January, which is likely to have cost taxpayers around £150m. Perhaps you’ve read about Crossrail, which has amassed a £2.7bn deficit. And to top it all off, if the high-speed train is ever to leave the railway station, one cabinet minister speculated that HS2 could cost taxpayers in excess of £100 billion!


Amid all these high figure headlines however, one group within government has continued to work very hard. This group, egged on and fuelled by a handful of pressure groups and academics, has been steadfast in its resolution and become immune to the trials and tribulations of public opinion. Let’s call this group of zealots, the nanny state.


At the nanny state’s heart is Public Health England (PHE), nominally responsible for protecting England from infectious diseases and environmental hazards, this organisation has adopted a range of additional duties. As such they tell us what we should be eating, how much is too much at the pub on a Friday night, and latterly they’ve bizarrely opened offices in Nigeria and Ethiopia. No matter how far you go, you are not beyond the reach of the nanny state!


Recently they have turned from the long-standing strategy of condescending education, towards a more aggressive form of enforcement. Rather than simply telling us what to eat, the nanny state’s new favoured strategy is to simply give us no choice but to nibble on carrots (beware, high in natural sugars!).


Hence the introduction in April of the ‘Sugar Tax’. This new tax (formally the Soft Drinks Industry Levy) has forced soft drink producers into reformulating their products to ensure they contain a minimal amount of sugar. Failure to do so results in a tax of 24 pence per litre being charged on any drink that contains 8 grams of sugar per every 100 millilitres; or 18 pence per litre if between 5 and 8 grams per 100 millilitres. The success of the tax has been mixed. Whilst half of soft drinks manufacturers had changed their recipes to suit the tax by April 2018, there is little evidence that it has led to any behavioural change. Unfortunately, this vindicates enforcement over education and has acted like a red rag to a bull as the public health lobby aim for this chink in the armour.


Since then, scarcely a day seems to go by without another news story wherein some government agency or pressure group slams a food product, seeks to ban something or proposes ever more harmful taxes on staple foods. First of all the infamous Chicken Parmo was slammed as being solely responsible for obesity in the North East! Sometimes containing as much as 2000 calories in a single portion, it is unsurprising that it has attracted the ire of the nanny state.


Then, public health officials began aiming to close loopholes in the original sugar tax, which exempted milk and juice based drinks. Mercifully, Public Health England acknowledges there isn’t much it can do about juice and so its targets are low. But no such mercy for milkshakes and similar drinks, which have until 2022 to reduce sugar content by 20 per cent. Sensing weakness, Action on Sugar have gone one step further and proposed an outright ban of high-calorie ‘freakshakes’.


The most recent declaration from our educated betters would next damn restaurants to some stringent mechanism to ruin eating out, because apparently restaurants are serving meals with “excessive” calorie contents.


But time after time, as nanny searches for foods to throw out the cupboard, nanny comes up short. By focusing so explicitly on very public proclamations that secure headlines, the public health lobby is in fact doing itself a great disservice. Normal people do not have a chicken parmo every day, it is considered an occasional treat and everyone that eats one understands that it is not the healthy option. Freakshakes are also not part of a normal individual’s everyday diet. 30+ teaspoons of sugar in a milkshake is an exceptional quantity, and I’d seriously advise anyone having one of these every day (or even every week) to consider their diet. But I’m unlikely to need to, because very few people do have one so frequently. Needless to say, it would be wrong to punish the majority who consume this product only on occasion, due to a minority who do over-indulge. Finally, an evening at a restaurant is (again) considered a treat by most people. A family that eats well 29 days a month should be allowed to simply indulge on the 1-2 days they can afford to eat out. And if they can’t, then what is the point of eating out at all?


If these nanny state zealots were to achieve their aims and see chicken parmos and freakshakes banned, and restaurants forced to adhere to calorie ceilings, then they would find almost no difference made to national obesity levels. And that is simply because the British people are by and large capable of understanding the age old rule that moderation is key to a healthy lifestyle. And that the occasional treat is exactly that, a treat.


Yet more dangerous to everyday liberties than any of these is the proposal for an extra tax on red meat put forth by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. Unlike soft drinks, red meat is an everyday ingredient and cannot be reformulated by simply exchanging one ingredient for another. As such there would be no way around paying this tax which would disproportionately harm those at the lower end of the income scale. Of course, they could instead purchase leaner meats or tofu-based meat substitutes, but they would not be doing so out of choice but because government were leaving them no choice. When health risks are marginal, government has no place in banning products to the general populace. To establish an effective prohibition on red meat that discriminates by income however would be nothing short of an assault on lower earners.


In its Christmas message this year, Public Health England has declared that the pace it has set in 2018 will not slow. In a year that has seen soft drinks taxed highly for sugar content, Taxpayers should then be alarmed what is next on the PHE hit list. However, the TaxPayers’ Alliance will in 2019 continue to place pressure on the nanny state wherever it begins to threaten the daily liberties of British residents as we have done throughout 2018 and will continue to do right up until 2019. Look out for the upcoming publication of the 2018 edition of the Nanny State Rich List.